Five Best Books on Life as a Civil War Soldier

No Freedom Shrieker: The Civil War Letters of Union Soldier Charles Biddlecom
Edited by Katherine M. Aldridge (2011)

As soon as New Yorker Charles Biddlecom joined the Army of the Potomac, he wanted to escape. Drafted in 1863, he shared none of the idealism of the volunteers of 1861. In virtually every letter to his family he complained about politicians, generals and, above all, army life. He told his wife that “I think sometimes if it was not for you and my children I would blow out my brains.” Biddlecom pulled through this dark period, but nearly deserted in the spring of 1864. He remained for the Overland Campaign, a brutal operation of some 22 days that resulted in nearly 55,000 Union casualties. Though he was in a state of shock, and surrounded by fellow survivors whose faces were “full of grief,” the battle changed Biddlecom's feelings about the war. His letters are far more introspective and candid than those of most Union and Confederate soldiers. Here are the thoughts of a man keenly aware of his own transformation. “I must not hold back [from battle] now after going through so much danger,” he wrote to his wife. “I have won character as a soldier.”

Last to Leave the Field: The Life and Letters of First Sergeant Ambrose Henry Hayward
Edited by Timothy J. Orr (2011)

Punctuation, spelling and writing conventions did not keep Pennsylvania's Ambrose Hayward from writing in his own vernacular, a conversational style that imbues his correspondence with the power of immediacy. “A ball knocked of[f] my cap and nearly took me from my feet,” he wrote of Antietam. “I put my hand up and saw there was no blood and Smiled.” By 1863, he was a hardened veteran who had seen “death in every shape.” At Ringgold, Ga., he lost his best friend. “Poor Fithian,” he wrote. “The ball struck him in the side. He dropped his Rifle. I saw that I could not reach him. I turned away dreading to see him roll down the mountain.” Yet he thought it was “glorious to be a Soldier after the Battle is over.” Hayward was repulsed by combat but also drawn to it. He believed that the blood sacrifice of its soldiers was a noble and necessary act if the Union was to be preserved—a cause for which he gave his own life after being mortally wounded near Atlanta in 1864.

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